Japanese 'mother-shipwreck' protected for future generations

Date published: 
Sun, 07/28/2013 - 12:30

The Sanyo Maru

The Sanyo Maru was a steel Japanese pearling mother-ship used to support a fleet of Japanese pearling luggers in the seas off Central Arnhem Land during the 1930s. At the height of the pearl shell industry 190 pearling luggers were operating in the Arafura Sea, with each lugger averaging a crew of 14.

The pearling mother-ships provided food, diesel fuel, wood for cooking fires and fresh water to the pearling luggers. Australian and foreign crews from all pearling vessels were not permitted to make landfall.


Located 60 kilometres off the Central Arnhem Land coast, the wreck of the Sanyo Maru sits on its keel at a depth of 27 metres and is the only known shipwreck of its type in Australia.

On 1 July 1937, Sanyo Maru, with its crew of 20, and heavily overloaded with harvested cargo, was hit by an unseasonal storm and headed seaward to find protection. The Sanyo Maru ‘rolled’ twice and then floundered and sank.

Some crew members managed to get away in a dinghy while others clung to floating debris. Survivors were picked up by other boats. Two crew members died in the sinking: a pearl diver and the ship’s purser.

The Sanyo Maru is significant, not only because it is the sole wreck of a Japanese pearling mother-ship near the Australian coast, but also because of the site’s remarkable condition and the significance of its archaeological relics.